Greenhorn apprentices and inept cooks used to be shunted to the pantry or cold line to make salads from kitchen scraps and leftover specials. In recent years, though, the most innovative chefs in the country have begun to view the salad as an ideal opportunity for experimentation with flavor, texture, temperature and presentation. At Norman's New World Cuisine, in Coral Gables, Fla., chef Norman Van Aken has concocted a "Fire & Ice" salad of tuna tartare with wasabi granité and lobster-bonito hash, dressed with golden pineapple jus and vanilla sabayon. At Cleveland's celebrated Lola Bistro, chef Michael Symon turns a local specialty on its head in his salad of sea bass "pastrami" with sweet-and-sour peppers and mustard vinaigrette. And at New York's Mesa Grill, Food Network darling Bobby Flay offers a warm blue-crab-and-potato salad with carrot-habañero broth and spicy beet relish.
What's unexpectedly downplayed in these salads is lettuce, and the trend is catching on in St. Louis. At The Crossing, in Clayton, the signature dish is a salad of organic beets and Montrachet goat cheese, stacked in alternating tiers like a napoleon. A handful of greens is scattered atop the layers. "It's a concept dish from top to bottom," says co-chef/co-owner Jim Fiala. "It's sweet and earthy. The goat cheese has that tang to balance the sweetness of the beets, which we flavor with sherry vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, shallots and parsley."
Adding a protein to the plate -- anything from pan-fried oysters to grilled rabbit to roast suckling pig -- turns a lithe salad into what Grenache's executive chef Steve Scherrer calls "a first-course-and-a-half." David Slay, executive chef at Zu Zu's Petals, cautions that composed salads should not mimic the entrées. "I don't like to be repetitive," he explains. "If I do a warm scallop salad, I won't have scallops anywhere else on the menu." Scherrer recently served a brawny salad of braised beef tongue with Parmesan crisps, shaved pears and a toasted-mustard-seed emulsion. "It tastes just like beef," he says. "Customers really liked it once they got past the idea that they were eating tongue."